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Development is a cliché machine, and its poetic sensibilities are, unsurprisingly, excruciating: “key words that might help — Michigan, he is of the people, he has been working hard to learn about campus, new beginnings, dawn of a new day, new energy on campus, uplifting.” They added, mercifully, that “the poem need not be long.” McFee, a poet of honor, declined.
This is the single most embarrassing thing I have ever read about a university president, and I say that as a former subject of Mark Schlissel, who displeased our Board of Regents to such an extent that they posted on our home page a link to his knishly yearning email correspondence with a female colleague.
The praise poem directive is instructive far beyond the visceral cringe it inflicts. Many of us have wondered for months now why public-university presidents have been silent on the extreme red-state attacks on academic freedom: the end of tenure in Texas, the erasure of entire fields of study in Florida and beyond, a prohibition of the study of racism in Louisiana, or the maliciously ludicrous bans on “divisive concepts” in Georgia and Tennessee. Every single one of these is a wrecking ball to the core mission of higher education, whose very lifeblood is the divisive concept, so you would expect that the men and women presiding over the vast enterprises that are flagship public universities would band together and call a five-alarm fire. Nobody is terribly surprised that “moderate” Ben Sasse, president of the University of Florida who once promised to “champion pluralism, curiosity, viewpoint diversity, open debate, and intellectual rigor,” is nowhere to be seen. But wouldn’t you expect the “first Asian American to lead U-M,” as the university’s public-affairs office proudly noted, to take at least mild exception to openly racist bills disfiguring public higher education in state after state?
U-M’s demand for a coronation poem that German Emperor Wilhelm II might have found a tad over the top is a clue. Liberal (or neo-liberal, if you want) administrators may not share the cultural politics of Republican governors Ron DeSantis, of Florida, or Greg Abbott, of Texas, but they do share their desire to refashion universities in the image of the American workplace, where at-will employees do what they’re told by feudal overlords who have poems commissioned in their praise.
Under Ono’s leadership, my university is threatening to withhold the paychecks of graduate-student instructors on strike for higher pay; their salary demands amount to 0.28% of our yearly revenue. When Ono was challenged by union members in a downtown restaurant, he had campus police arrest and handcuff the protesters — off campus, no less. Deans have ordered faculty to calculate and submit grades of students they have not taught, on material in which they hold no expertise, a move that has galvanized even the notoriously timid executive committee of the faculty senate into a statement demanding that the administration rescind the scabbing orders and urging faculty not to comply. I am sad to say that many of my colleagues will nonetheless do so, allowing themselves to be implicated not just in crude union-busting, but also in a system that declares student assessment a rote exercise requiring neither expertise nor familiarity with the students assessed.
Unionization is the only way to keep academe’s heart beating.
An ominous email from my college’s associate dean of undergraduate education reads: “Who should be reporting grades? Generally, the responsibility for calculating and reporting grades rests with the instructor of record, who is appointed by the department chair. When an instructor will not report grades, the chair may appoint an alternate to complete this task. If a faculty member refuses to report grades, we recommend that the chair contact their divisional associate dean for help.” Union-busting is a tool used to discipline all employees, not merely the ones on strike. It is baffling how few faculty members understand this, though the tide may be turning. U-M’s history department faculty have declared that they “made a collective decision to withhold our grades as a form of protest until May 12th”; a similar pledge is currently circulating universitywide for signatures, and a letter of protest titled “UM Community Condemns Administration’s Response to GEO Strike” has collected more than 1300 signatures from faculty, staff, students, and alumni by Monday night.
You need not even support the graduate-student union’s platform to be deeply disturbed by the university’s tactics, served up, naturally, as designed to “avert harm” to undergraduate students. Never mind that the county judge, Carol Kuhnke, denied U-M an injunction that would have ordered the graduate students back to work, ruling that the university has not been able to establish “irreparable harm.”
But irreparable harm has been done nonetheless — not to undergraduates, but to the only significant workplace in the United States where at least some employees were free of the private government logic characteristic of American employment — a private government that in blue states has not yet merged with state power and need not do so as long as tenured faculty comply with its directives. A colleague in the College of Engineering once wrote to me that faculty unionization “would be a formal admission that faculty are just one group of employees, and no longer the heart of academia.” I believe this is exactly backwards: Unionization is the only way to keep academe’s heart beating and ensure that the people who do what universities should do — create and disseminate knowledge — meaningfully participate in its institutional shape.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the academic DEI machine — which on its surface pursues excellent goals I support wholeheartedly — is functioning as a thin progressive veneer covering reactionary policies. Right-wing attacks on university programs that seek to address the effects of historic injustice, or on scholarly work that analyze them, allow universities such as mine to posture as bulwarks of free inquiry. But it should not need to be said that there are no progressive politics without support for labor rights (just as it should go without saying that labor rights are not in conflict with the rights of marginalized communities). Universities that have retained some modicum of freedom will only be able to defend what is left if their faculty recognize that it is time to join forces with organized labor and actively resist the managerial autocracy increasingly characteristic of both reactionary and liberal modes of control.
In the meantime, I wonder if a president has ever been impeached for crimes against poetry.